Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis, and Radical Activism

Paul Addis, the man convicted of arson at Burning Man, the massive fire arts festival, committed suicide on Saturday night.

From the Reno Gazette-Journal:

The charred remains of the iconic Burning Man effigy after Paul Addis burned it early at the 2007 event.

Paul Addis, a longtime Burner and artist fed up with the way Burning Man was being organized, died after he jumped in front of a moving BART train at Embarcadero station on Saturday night, according to multiple Bay Area news reports. He was 42.

Addis was convicted of felony arson after setting fire to what festival-goers call “The Man” on that early Tuesday morning [in 2007].

Burning Man is an annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada which attracts over 50,000 attendees and has spawned a worldwide subculture of smaller regional events and year-round communities. The event is based around ethics of a gift economy and radical participation, and has its roots in anarchic gatherings created by groups like the Cacophony Society and Crash Worship (whose descendants Flam Chen were profiled here last weekend).

Its central ritual is the end of week burning of a massive effigy of a human figure. Addis short-circuited this ritual in 2007 by setting fire to the icon on the event’s first night. Reports differ on the circumstances of this action, with Addis claiming warnings were given and attempts made to clear the area while other eyewitnesses tell stories of helping endangered, inebriated people away from the flames. Addis was arrested, convicted of felony arson, and spent two years in jail.

Burning Man offers a place where some people (those who can afford it) come to explore the nature of identity, creativity and social interaction free from the constraints of mainstream capitalist culture. Yet as the event grew, this experiment in temporary community naturally adopted rules. Steven T. Jones, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter who has chronicled many Burning Man events, cites a tragic accidental death in 1996 as the beginning of the end of the events’ true lawlessness.

Addis, a Cacophonist Society member who participated in its early days, had (more harmlessly) pranked the man before by infamously attaching a pair of testicles to the sculpture in the late ’90s. He grew bitter at the changes to his beloved community and imagined himself a direct action hero who would reclaim the free spirit of the event by making good on an annually recurring rumor — that the Man would Burn early. Addis seemed to imagine himself a larger-than-life figure modeled off of Hunter S. Thompson, who he played in a one-man show.

In his book Tribes of Burning Man, Jones describes Addis’ motivation for the costly prank: [cont’d.]

Addis seems to believe in big gestures like torching the man can prompt people to rally for change. “In any situation, it only takes one person to make a difference. I firmly believe that.” Beyond just taking back Burning Man, Addis wanted to reclaim the country from the screwheads and war mongers, to end the Iraq War, and help “rehumanize” the returning soldiers.

As he announced grandly, “We’re taking it back, that hulking retard known as America.”

There’s no more divisive figure in the Burning Man subculture than Addis. A lengthy profile of Addis’ life and death by Whatsblem the Pro on the Burning Man commentary blog along with the heated comments that follow offers a glimpse into the kind of debate which erupts any time his name is mentioned:

A lot has been said and written about Addis burning the Man. Any casual observer would find it easy to very quickly conclude that Addis was seriously disturbed, deeply criminal at the very least, and possibly even criminally insane. Certainly his actions generated a huge amount of rancor, but to what extent was his early burn a product of criminality and madness, and to what extent was it a coherent social and/or artistic statement … and was it relevant? More to the point, did Addis get what he deserved?

Though the profile is a fascinating one worth reading in its entirety, it’s still unclear what to make of Addis — was he a prankster in a culture built around pranksterism who went too far? A troubled man who never escaped the consequences of his troubled actions? A misunderstood artist or a dangerous narcissist?

One of the Black Rock Rangers, volunteer conflict mediators who keep Burning Man safe. Despite their presence, the event is patrolled by multiple law enforcement agencies.

All of this would be simply an interesting sideline from the history of a quirky minority except that I think the case of Paul Addis highlights issues faced by Occupiers and all activists who dream of creating new forms of society or ways of living. The early Occupy encampments resembled Burning Man’s atmosphere of radical inclusion (without the festival’s high cost of attendance) and faced similar challenges when their community attracted the passionate but troubled and the most damaged among humanity. How should a community bent on existing outside the mundane world, or bent on remaking it, respond to such individuals?

Addis’ rebellious rhetoric also resonates to this gonzo journalist on multiple levels. His desire to take back society is one that can be heard among many an activist gathering — but it echoes both those driven to make change and the seductive words of provocateurs who seek to undermine a movement. The arson serves as a reminder to consider the effects of direct action — while some feel that he struck a blow against a work of art turned corporate logo, his actions disrupted the event for many artists who’d exhibited their work around the effigy at the city’s central core, not to mention the event’s builders who spent the rest of their week with tools in hand instead of celebrating. In some ways Addis’ actions resemble temper tantrums I’ve seen in Occupy, where burnt out activists that are frustrated at the slow pace of social change instead lash out at perceived flaws in the social change movement itself.

Finally, the action and its response highlight that no place is truly autonomous from society. Most societies would have reacted punitively to the destruction of others’ artwork, yet Burning Man’s organizers claim they were forced to respond in the way they did — pushing for a felony prison sentence — in order to placate the law enforcement and governmental agencies on whom the event depends for its continued existence. Jones’ Tribes quotes Burning Man Executive Project Manager Ray Allen:

Part of putting on the Burning Man event means maintaining good relations with Pershing County so that we can continue to have the Burning Man event on [Bureau of Land Management-controlled] land within that county. Good relations means cooperating with criminal prosecutors. … Refusing to press charges for a felony arson that threatened human life would not bode well with the government and law enforcement agencies in Nevada that support our event.

During their height, residents of the Occupy movement’s camps wrestled not only with how to respond to police intrusions, but also with how to respond to infractions against safety and social norms by its own members — when, where, and how was it appropriate to voluntarily involve the police?

While event organizers may justifiably argue that their hands were tied, it’s easy for this journalist to look at Addis’ tragic end and see that from one of the freest places on earth came another victim of the police and prison state.

Photo of the 2007 Burnt Man cropped from an original by Miss Karen. Ranger photo cropped from an original by Ratha Grimes. Both images are licensed on Flickr under the Creative Commons.

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